Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Double Standards Never Work at Work

It's natural to see reasons for saying one thing and doing another.

An overly hard and arbitrary management style is rarely a good idea, but when it’s directed at one employee or even one group of employees it’s almost guaranteed to be a problem.

I dealt with one manager who frequently resorted to a style that was harsh, arbitrary and capricious behavior when dealing with one employee. The worker was difficult, but the manager completed undercut any credibility by using a completely different style with others within the same organization, a style that was actually permissive and democratic.

These contradictory behaviors unbalanced the whole organization and created mistrust. Why should the contradictory behaviors lead to a loss of trust? People are very observant in organizations. Even if other workers think the abused staff member deserved the treatment, they will also conclude that the abuser can turn that ire toward them. Just because it is not directed toward them now doesn’t mean that it can’t be turned toward in their direction in the future. We all have the capacity to be harsh and unkind. When one is so undisciplined or so capricious as to unleash that on someone at work, it is an easy leap to the presumption that the same fate could be mine.

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What should have happened instead? The organizational climate or culture is always controlled by the leader. Looking at this situation, it is not too different from any organization in that there will always be one or more difficult people to manage. Their personality is abrasive or annoying. Their habits may be unattractive. Their tongue can be sharp. They may be difficult all of the time, or only when they are experiencing stress. Let’s face it we all lead stressful lives!

Dealing with these people must be accomplished privately, never publically. On the public surface, everyone must be treated with dignity and respect. In private, the direct message to the offender is, “This is how I deal with you and this is how I expect you to deal with others. I don’t fly off the handle with you and I expect you to control your impulses or proclivities to be harsh as well.”

Both the leader and his employees should expect a climate of professionalism and polite decorum. The manager should in fact insist upon it, and demonstrate it. Then the manager can expect it in return. If it is not forthcoming, then council the worker again with a follow up in writing, which also documents the incident. Give appropriate time for the offender to show improvement. Complement them when you see improvement and continue to hold them accountable if you don’t see improvement.

If you still don’t see improvement then, I would label the situation a “won’t fix” and let the offender know that if it happens again or if you get continuing negative feedback, termination will result. 

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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